Today in Baseball History: The White Sox trade Sammy Sosa to the Cubs

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In July of 1985 the Texas Rangers signed Sammy Sosa out of the Dominican Republic. He was just one of many rising young talents that rebuilding Rangers team would develop in the mid-to-late 80s. By the dawn of the 1989 season he, along with an about-to-truly-break-out Ruben Sierra, the recently-acquired Rafael Palmerio, and young pitchers Kenny Rogers, Kevin Brown, and Wilson Alvarez were all poised to be a part of the next good Rangers club.

And that 1989 club — which also featured veteran pitchers Nolan Ryan and Charlie Hough, veteran hitter Julio Franco and a powerful young slugger named Pete Incaviglia — was good, at least for a little while. The powerful Oakland A’s owned the AL West at the time, but Texas broke out pretty quickly, fell back a bit, but by late June had climbed to within two games of the Bash Brothers. That inspired General Manager Tom Grieve to add a bat. He found a trading partner in Larry Himes, GM for the Chicago White Sox.

The bat he added: Harold Baines, who had been raking for the White Sox in the first 96 games of the season. The price for Baines: young Sammy Sosa, who had gotten his first taste of the big leagues in June and early July. He wasn’t ready for it and was a liability in 88 plate appearances. Years later, President George W. Bush, who was the owner of the Rangers at the time of the trade, would cite his approval of the Baines-Sosa deal as his biggest regret, but it made a good deal of short-term sense at the time. Unfortunately for the Rangers Baines was pretty average in the season’s final couple of months. The Rangers faded badly in the dog days of August and finished the season 16 games back of the eventual World Series champ Athletics.

The White Sox were quite high on their new young, toolsy prospect at first. After the trade in 1989 Sosa put up a decent .273/.351/.414 (118 OPS+), which was certainly promising. In 1990, however, he’d falter, batting .233/.282/.404 with 15 homers in 579 plate appearances in his first full year in the bigs. He flashed some of the speed he had shown in the Rangers’ system — he stole 32 bases — but he was also caught stealing 16 times which was less-than-ideal. The next year he declined sharply, hitting only .203/.240/.335 with 10 homers. That July he’d earn a demotion to Triple-A. It was pretty clear he had played his way out of the White Sox’ future plans, even if he was only 22.

Meanwhile, on the North Side, a former MVP was scuffling along.

George Bell made his big league debut in 1981 and from 1984 through 1990, he was a fixture in the Blue Jays’ lineup. His best season came in 1987, when he hit .308/.352/.608, scored 111 runs, hit 47 homers and led the league with 134 RBI. While his Jays fell just short of the Tigers for the AL East title — and while Tigers shortstop Alan Trammell had what everyone now considers to have been a clearly superior season — Bell was awarded the AL MVP.

Over the next three seasons, Bell would clash with manager Jimy Williams, who could see quite clearly that Bell was a defensive liability and wanted him to DH. Bell pushed back and mostly got his way, appearing as a DH only a handful of times each year. He’d continue, in the aggregate, to be a slightly above-average hitter, but it was pretty clear that 1987 was an outlier year and Bell’s peak. The Jays decided to shake up their roster following the 1990 season, acquiring Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar from the Padres for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez. Bell, a free agent who realized he was no longer wanted or needed in Toronto, would sign a three-year, $9.8 million deal with the Cubs a few days after the blockbuster trade. That deal worked out well for the Jays, obviously. They would win World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.

Bell’s first year in Chicago was pretty decent by his standards. He hit .285/.323/.468 with 25 homers and made the National League All-Star team. He continued, however, to be a huge defensive liability. He was also expensive, and the Cubs had not improved despite the addition of Bell and free agents Danny Jackson and Dave Smith, each of whom had flopped. All of that led to the reassignment of Cubs GM Jim Frey. His replacement was Larry Himes. The same Himes who had acquired Sosa when he was the White Sox GM a couple of years before. Himes wanted to tighten things up, so, on March 30, 1992 — 28 years ago today — he traded for Sosa a second time.

The Cubs sent Bell to the White Sox for Sosa and lefty reliever Ken Patterson and cash. As with all trades, the contemporaneous reports of this one had both GMs declaring victory. From the Associated Press the day after the trade, here was the Sox’ take:

“We got the guy we wanted,” said Ron Schueler, White Sox general manager. “We got the pure hitter.”

As for the Cubs, here was Himes’ take:

“What we’re giving up is an outstanding hitter. George will always be a good hitter, and he’s going to fit in very well in the White Sox lineup . . . [Sosa] is an outstanding defensive ballplayer, who will add speed to our ballclub. We were the worst team in allowing doubles last year, and with Sammy that’s going to change.”

I’m sure at some point down the line someone asked Himes what he was basing his take on, because Sosa’s defensive skills were and always would be pretty poor. Being charitable, Sosa at least looked the part back then. He was fast and lean and young and, though his arm was not great, it was better than Bell’s. Himes clearly liked what he saw in Sosa back when he first acquired him from the Rangers, so he probably had some personal investment in seeing Sosa succeed. And, of course, viewed with today’s eyes it looks an awful lot like a salary dump. Himes was likely under orders from the Tribune Company to undo some of the spending Frey had done, so yeah.

In 1992 the trade didn’t look like it had made too much of a difference either way. Bell’s power numbers were superficially impressive, as he hit 25 homers and drove in 112, but he slumped to a line of .255/.294/.418 and sported an OPS+ of only 99 and a negative WAR. Sosa battled injuries and would only play in 67 games and remained a below average fielder. In 1993, however, everything changed.

Bell would only play in 102 games that year due to a bum knee and struggled mightily at the plate, finishing the season 0-for-his-last-26. His White Sox played well despite his efforts, however, winning 94 games and the AL West title. The Sox would play Bell’s old team, the Blue Jays, in the ALCS, but Bell would ride the pine in favor of Bo Jackson. Unhappy with that, Bell lashed out publicly against manager Gene Lamont in the middle of the series:

“I don’t respect Gene Lamont as a manager or as a man. What he’s doing to me is cruel. He’s not showing me any respect. I’m not the only guy in the clubhouse who feels that way. There are 10 or 11. I will not play for Gene-O again.”

And he didn’t. The White Sox declined the option on Bell’s contract for the 1994 season and not only would Bell not play for Lamont again, he would never play in the bigs again, period.

Sosa, meanwhile, finally emerged in 1993, swatting 33 homers and driving in 93. In the strike-shortened 1994 season he hit .300 and launched 25 homers. From 1995 through 1997 he’d average a line of .263/.320/.511, 37 homers and 112 RBI. He still struck out a lot and was, at best, erratic in the outfield, but if he had been hit by a bus before the 1998 season began the trade still would’ve been a totally lopsided one in favor of the Cubs.

You know the rest of the story, of course. Sosa did not get hit by a bus. He would become the face of baseball in 1998, competing neck-and-neck with Mark McGwire in the chase of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record and, in the process, bringing baseball back to prominence and all but erasing the negative public image of the sport due to the 1994-95 strike. Sosa didn’t beat McGwire, but he caught Maris, hitting 66 homers and driving in 158 en route to the NL MVP Award while leading the Cubs to their first postseason appearance in nine years. He’d top 60 homers again in 1999 and 2001, while swatting 50 in 2000, 49 in 2002 and 40 in 2003.

Sosa would leave the Cubs after 2004, spending one season in Baltimore and then one final season where it all began, with the Texas Rangers, before retiring after the 2006 campaign. He finished his career with 609 career home runs. He currently ranks ninth on the all-time homer list, just behind Jim Thome and just ahead of Frank Robinson.

Now, obviously, that’s not all there is to the Sammy Sosa story. We talked a couple of weeks ago about his late-career and post-career infamy. While the evidence of his PED use has not been publicly established to the extent has been for his 1990s-early-2000s slugging peers, no one seriously doubts that Sosa used PEDs in his prime. All of that has led to his once sure-thing Hall of Fame case becoming a non-starter, as he has never received more than 13.9% of the vote in eight years on the ballot. It has also led to an estrangement from the Cubs organization, which is a shame for both Sosa and the Cubs and a loss for Cubs fans who enjoyed some pretty fantastic baseball in the 1990s and early 2000s thanks to Sosa, regardless of what he might’ve been taking.

It was some pretty fantastic baseball that Northside fans never would’ve seen if Larry Himes hadn’t sent George Bell to the South Side for him, on this date in 1992.

 

Also today in baseball history:

1978: The Red Sox obtain Dennis Eckersley and catcher Fred Kendall from the Indians for pitchers Rick Wise and Mike Paxton, designated hitter Ted Cox and catcher Bo Diaz.

1991: A sold-out Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami plays host to an exhibition game between the Yankees and the Orioles. The game draws 67,654 fans, and would be cited as one of the reasons Miami would eventually be awarded an expansion franchise a few months later.

1993: Peanuts character Charlie Brown finally hits a home run.

2006: Commissioner Bud Selig appoints George Mitchell to head an investigation into the use of steroids in baseball. The Mitchell Report would be released in late 2007.